War, peace, and the surprising beauty of stones

Diary of an Autumn Leafer – Jeju Island Tourist Bus

Besides meet up with old friends and colleagues who now work in schools on Jeju Island – and having Mexican food and local Korean BBQ for various meals – there were a few looping tourist buses that run around the island to drop people off at various locations around Jeju. We grabbed one such bus early in the morning from the main bus depot and started our island tour for about $1 USD (8000 won) each ride.

The first stop was about a forty-five minutes from the city, a quiet spot called the Jeju 4.3 Peace Park. It was a well-done and well-run museum and park dedicated to the April 3rd Incident – a multi-year massacre of around 30,000 local people on Jeju. Between 1947 and 1953, a convergence of ideology and violence led to the islanders being driven inward toward the highest mountain on the island. As the South Korean – and, as the museum has it, the American – army moved to suppress all the fighting, the deaths and executions of local people led to an island being torn apart and traditional ways of life being destroyed. Of course, a good deal of this fighting came down to the communist versus anti-communist ideals, as much of the war and violence during this time showed.

Villages burned. People were rounded up and executed for being “communist dangers”. With the Soviet forces marching into South Korea, they tightened up more control in Jeju. Women were raped and children slaughtered. Of course, the airbrush of history covered this over, and people were threatened to never speak of what happened in Jeju.

The museum moved us through the history leading up to the incident, and the exhibits really hit for emotional impact. There was one part where we walked into a cave where skeletons had been discovered during explorations of caves on the island. As it turns out, the people had taken refuge in the caves to hide from the fighting and violence, and when the group was found out, explosives were thrown inside, driving the people further back. However, all of them died of smoke inhalation and bodies were left there for decades until discovery. South Korea covered up what happened there until about 1990, when they apologized for their actions on Jeju.

War is hell – there is no two ways around it, and it is often the innocent who suffer the consequences of unhinged ideologies.

After the terror of war, the Jeju Stone Park was a silent, welcome respite.

Of course, a stone park sounds about as exciting as Bingo on Monday night at the old folk’s home, but to be honest, it was incredibly fascinating. Because of Jeju’s very hot-headed volcanic nature – it’s pretty much one big volcanic mass – plenty of lava-type rocks had formed and spewed out of eruptions centuries or whatever ago. I just thought there was lava rocks, but apparently, there are a gazillion types of lava rocks with different shapes, styles, appearances, and whatnot.

The Jeju Stone Park celebrates the history and folk culture of the island. Stones were arranged in typical patterns according to local folklore. The stone “generals” – tall stones guarding a deep pond – were apparently the many, many sons of a woman (sometimes called “grandmother” in the signage). I think, at some point, grandmother ended up falling into a soup-pot, the kids had her for dinner, it was the best soup they’d ever had – and I don’t remember the rest of the legend. I just kept thinking, no more soup for me …

The Dol Hareubang rocks – volcanic rocks carved into a folklorish old man figure which look more than slightly phallic (they eventually became associated with fertility, after a fashion) – were silently watching over the visitors, while the Stone Museum showed off the geologic formation of Jeju, its many types of rocks, and displayed some very creative-looking stones.

We ended up having lunch in the little cafe there – the only foreigners around, I believe – and finished up the walk by enjoying the massive pottery fields and traditional folk villages set up around the outskirts of the park.

A stone park … way more interesting than one could imagine.

From there, it was back into Jeju-si proper to browse a local traditional market – Dongmun Market, relatively close to the seafront promenade. Firstly, though, we wanted a proper coffee, which was so easy to find in Korea. Korea and coffee – oh, my word. If it’s not the insane prevalence of Starbucks in Seoul, the local chains and independent cafes were all over the country. Every other shop seemed liked a coffee/tea joint. The character of each was also interesting. Some places just never stopped celebrating Christmas.

The market held an insane variety of Jeju citrus. Tangerines, oranges, clementines, and other breeds of oranges big and small lined the many stalls. Citrus tea and Jeju chocolates (in the Dol Hareubang fashion) abounded. The air was filled with the tang of citrus – it was impossible to ignore the juicy oranges and not buy a bag of them. A bag I ate most of before the end of the day.

Inside Dongmun Market

Of course, there was the fish side of the market, but that was the less pleasant side to peruse, so we hurried through that and out into the fresher air of the local alley.

Sometimes, no matter how much I love local markets, there’s only so much fish guts and scales flying everywhere I can handle.

One last stop in Jeju was a walk around the waterfront, not only around the promenade, but inland a bit as well and over to the scenic Yongduam Rock, a dragon head-shaped rock that is favored by the locals and the many, many Chinese tourists who visit Jeju.

The sea crashed into the rocks and the sun began to lower on the horizon as we continued our walk over to D Stone Pub, a large restaurant right on the water. Its massive windows overlook the frothy water – mind the overspray from the sea if you walk the promenade! – framed the sunset quite beautifully as we noshed on fat burgers, fries, and massive German and Belgian beers.

As we waited for an empty taxi to come by and take us back to the hotel, we snapped photos of the waning sunlight over the island. The wind had turned crisp and cool off the sea, the salt clinging to my face as I stared out at the misty islands just north of Jeju and listened to the gushing water.

Jeju, land of mystical folklore and real life mermaids who still free dive in the traditional style (see the Huff Post article about them here – “Meet the Last Generation of Haenyo“), was a beautiful place to visit. Though the first day there had meant a surprisingly cold rainstorm and lack of umbrellas, the last day there meant the multilayers of color over a choppy, dark sea.

Not a bad way to end a few days on Jeju before heading to Seoul.


One Comment Add yours

  1. Beautiful photos that unfortunately have a sad story behind them.


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